In a speech to her party last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany, “wherever legally possible,” should ban veils that cover the face, and emphasized that German law should not give way to Shariah law. Her audience cheered – but that only confirmed her error. Pandering to grievances, real or imagined, rarely works.

Successful immigration requires a high degree of assimilation, and that’s a challenge when the influx is large or abrupt – like the recent wave of refugees arriving in Germany. Merkel had earlier announced something close to an open-door policy. The stresses and backlash were predictable.

Now, elections are coming up in Germany, and Merkel rightly wants to deny support to the far-right AfD party, whose anti-immigrant thinking is driven not by prudence but by outright racism. In response, Merkel’s newly hardened position is both weak on the merits and plain bad tactics.

The full-face veil is not much seen in Germany – and who’s actually claiming that Shariah law should overrule German law? The effect of her statement is not to encourage assimilation, but merely to convey sympathy with the anti-immigrant worldview. Hence, bad tactics: She’s as good as conceding that the AfD has a point.

Instead, Merkel should say that future inflows of immigrants will be regulated more cautiously, and that adequate resources for managing and accepting the arrivals will be made available.

At the same time, though, she should insist that the migrants who have already arrived ought not to be treated with disrespect. They will follow the law, and be expected to be good neighbors. But with limited exceptions (for instance, proof of identity during security checks), religious belief and customs remain matters of private conscience, not the concern of the state.


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